Why Barcelona's Spanish Super Cup success could be the start of something special for Xavi
For a second, Xavi allowed himself to smile. His Barcelona side had just put together a wonderfully flowing goal in Sunday's Spanish Super Cup final.
Eight seconds and four passes after Sergio Busquets had won the ball in midfield, Gavi was slotting it into the back of the net.
It was the first of three such sequences, and the often surly manager showed more emotion every time. A smirk became a grin. He even appeared to laugh at full-time.
For good reason, too. On his 435th day as Barcelona manager, Xavi won his first trophy, thanks to a 3-1 win over Barca's biggest rivals.
Such a victory could prove a massive moment in his reign. It certainly meant a lot to him, and his squad.
"I've been here for so many years," he said. "I know how much players suffer when things don't go well. Today is the start of a new, positive dynamic."
Three months ago, silverware seemed very unlikely. Barcelona had just been knocked out of the Champions League group stage, with their inability to beat Inter effectively consigning them to a second successive first-round exit.
The critics were out in full force, calling for Xavi to be sacked. He himself admitted that he would understand if Barcelona made the decision to terminate his contract unless results improved.
But president Joan Laporta defended the man he defiantly appointed for the job. He insisted that Xavi had his backing, and that the coach would be given time.
"When we are in a difficult situation, he always sees the positive side... [He has] all my confidence," Laporta told BarcaTV.
Xavi didn't exactly repay his faith immediately. Four days after a damaging 3-3 draw at home to Inter, Barcelona were easily defeated in the first Clasico of the season a few days later, losing 3-1 to a rampant Real side.
But then, something changed.
Barcelona beat Athletic Club 4-0 in their next Liga outing. After the game, midfielder Franck Kessie asserted that Xavi had turned things around.
"If we have come back like this [after a couple of poor results], then it is also thanks to Xavi and the staff," Kessie said.
The Blaugrana have steadily put a run of good results together since then, and quietly become one of the best defensive units in Europe in the process.
They currently sit top of La Liga, and have only conceded six goals, despite not always looking totally convincing at the back.
And now, after Sunday's impressive showing, they have a trophy to show for their improvement.
Xavi's job may have been on the line going into the game and yet he produced something of a tactical clinic.
Barcelona’s midfield is locked in for years 🤩 pic.twitter.com/aotpATTtIe— GOAL (@goal) January 16, 2023
His team selection was brave. He put oft-criticised Sergio Busquets in a double pivot alongside Frenkie de Jong, and benched the leggy Jordi Alba in favour of youngster Alex Balde.
Furthermore, he played four natural centre-midfielders, with Gavi on the left, and Pedri in a central role behind Robert Lewandowski.
Barcelona were ruthless in attack, with all three of their goals coming from enthralling moves on the break.
They were defensively sound, too, with Ronald Araujo slotting it at right-back to clamp Vinicius Jr.
Karim Benzema, meanwhile, was left starved for space, and never truly got in the game.
But the real takeaway was the adventure of the team, the enthusiasm with which Barcelona performed.
Since Lionel Messi's departure 18 months ago, Barca have played little brother to Los Blancos, watching Carlo Ancelotti's side win the Champions League and La Liga with relative ease.
Meanwhile, Xavi's sides fell out of competitions early, failing to advance past the round of 16 in last year's Copa del Rey, and exiting the Europa League in the last four to eventual winners Eintracht Frankfurt.
The Clasicos since then, apart from one miraculous 4-0 thrashing, had been timid tales, with Barcelona ultimately outclassed by a more experienced side — both in age and mentality.
But here, Barcelona looked like the perennial winners. Or at least, they played like it.
Barcelona back on top 😈 pic.twitter.com/NuNYI6U3OZ— GOAL (@goal) January 16, 2023
Gavi and Pedri pressed Luka Modric and Toni Kroos relentlessly. Frenkie de Jong and Sergio Busquets worked in tandem to syphon off service to Benzema.
Dani Carvajal, a stalwart in Madrid and Spain's defence for so many years, was left helpless as Balde ran past him time and time again.
Xavi was there on the sidelines the whole time, barking orders and gesticulating as his team ran riot. Ancelotti acknowledged after the game that his side had been off the pace, simply outclassed by a superior opponent.
For the last 18 months, Xavi has been the one giving that press conference, lamenting a poor performance or outlining his team's tactical shortcomings.
Sunday night, though, the roles were reversed. Xavi remained relatively calm as the goals went in, the odd smirk here or hi-five there. But by full-time, the smiles and chants were there in full.
Madrid appeared exhausted as they staggered on stage to collect their runners' up medals, each one of them wearing a grim expression as they watched their arch rivals take the stage.
Barcelona, meanwhile, looked a youthful outfit as they raised the trophy, their young manager at their side the whole time.
The Super Cup is, of course, a relatively minor trophy, a money-making exercise.
For Xavi and Barcelona, though, it was a massive step forward. Trophies are expected at Barca. But this one could be special. It could well pave the way for many more.